Thursday, July 12, 2007

It's The Territory, Stupid

A Bruce Schneier essay in Wired that's worth reading in its entirety. But we'll draw out the important parts:
People tend to infer the motives -- and also the disposition -- of someone who performs an action based on the effects of his actions, and not on external or situational factors. If you see someone violently hitting someone else, you assume it's because he wanted to -- and is a violent person -- and not because he's play-acting. If you read about someone getting into a car accident, you assume it's because he's a bad driver and not because he was simply unlucky. And -- more importantly for this column -- if you read about a terrorist, you assume that terrorism is his ultimate goal.

Like most cognitive biases, correspondent inference theory makes evolutionary sense. In a world of simple actions and base motivations, it's a good rule of thumb that allows a creature to rapidly infer the motivations of another creature. (He's attacking me because he wants to kill me.) Even in sentient and social creatures like humans, it makes a lot of sense most of the time. If you see someone violently hitting someone else, it's reasonable to assume that he's a violent person. Cognitive biases aren’t bad; they’re sensible rules of thumb.

But like all cognitive biases, correspondent inference theory fails sometimes. And one place it fails pretty spectacularly is in our response to terrorism. Because terrorism often results in the horrific deaths of innocents, we mistakenly infer that the horrific deaths of innocents is the primary motivation of the terrorist, and not the means to a different end.

I found this interesting analysis in a paper by Max Abrams in International Security. "Why Terrorism Does Not Work" (.PDF) analyzes the political motivations of 28 terrorist groups: the complete list of "foreign terrorist organizations" designated by the U.S. Department of State since 2001. He lists 42 policy objectives of those groups, and found that they only achieved them 7 percent of the time.

According to the data, terrorism is more likely to work if 1) the terrorists attack military targets more often than civilian ones, and 2) if they have minimalist goals like evicting a foreign power from their country or winning control of a piece of territory, rather than maximalist objectives like establishing a new political system in the country or annihilating another nation. But even so, terrorism is a pretty ineffective means of influencing policy.

This theory explains, with a clarity I have never seen before, why so many people make the bizarre claim that al Qaeda terrorism -- or Islamic terrorism in general -- is "different": that while other terrorist groups might have policy objectives, al Qaeda's primary motivation is to kill us all. This is something we have heard from President Bush again and again -- Abrams has a page of examples in the paper -- and is a rhetorical staple in the debate.

The Abrams' paper Schneier refers to can be found here (.pdf file).

Even sensible people (Jon Wilde of Distributed Republic, nee Catallarchy being one example) can make the mistake of believing that al Qaeda "hates us for our freedom." This analysis fails in the armchair for a few reasons:

(1) Jihad has been a pillar of Ismaili Shi'a for centuries. Radical, anti-Western ideologies like Salafist Islam (the brand to which al Qaeda subscribes) have been around since the 1800s. Yet Arab terrorism has only blossomed in the West in the 20th and 21st centuries. What has changed on the Arabian Peninsula in the last century that might have caused that?

(2) Why do Arab terrorists devote most of their attention to London (we're ignoring the few futile idiots that have been caught in the United States, such as the geniuses who tried to ignite a fuel line with a blowtorch at JFK Airport)? Wouldn't France, Germany, Belgium, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Ireland or any other largely Westernized country make an easier target? In other words, why do Arab terrorists devote most of their attention to the countries that have a sizable presence in the Persian Gulf?

(3) If the face value claim that Arabs attack the West for its ideology is to be swallowed without hesitation, should the face value claim that the West attacks Iraq in the name of "freedom" be taken equally seriously? If not, why not?


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